Sunday, January 28, 2007

Charity under siege

Nowadays, it doesn't pay to do good. I mean it has never paid to do good any day. Rather, what I mean is that it should never pay to do good at all. Whenever the public finds out that the CEO of a charitable organisation is paid in excess of S$10,000, the alarm bells start to go off. While we must always be vigilant against excesses, it is also right that a person who works is deserving of his pay.

This is the dilemma that any person who runs a charity organisation or who is thinking of starting a charity organisation in Singapore needs to consider very consciousnessly and deliberately. Ever since the NKF saga, charities or Institutes of Public Character (IPC) are increasingly under siege - from the regulatory authorities, from the NCSS, from the donors and, ironically, from the volunteers themselves. Youth Challenge, an organisation that has channelled youths into charitable and meaningful activities for the last 30 years, has come under financial scrutiny due apparently to complaints received from its volunteers, whose behaviour and attitudes have been less than generous and charitable to start off with. The truth is now out, and its erstwhile CEO, Mr Vincent Lam, booted out together with it. (Well, yes, he resigned, but its the same as the boot, is it not?) This must be a sad day for Mr Lam, who spent 30 years building up YC only to be felled by it.

On the other hand, we have recently witnessed one of the largest charitable actions in the history of man. Mr Warren Buffet, the Oracle of Omaha, donated all of US$31 billion worth of his fortune, accumulated through his Berkshire Hathaway investment company, to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. That kind of money is good enough for me to retire a thousand times over. Mr Buffet is not even leaving that pile to his children, saying that he had already given them the means to make a living on their own, re-affirming the power and wisdom of that oft-quoted saying, 'give a man a fishing rod...".

Charities remain an important part of society. There will always be the poor, the downtrodden, the ones whose 'luck' has run out, who needs another chance, who are struck down by a malady that, without good medicine, medical and social care and concern, often means a painful existence that often and quickly slips into despair. Yes, we need concerned and generous people no matter if some among us are proven to be exploitative and wasteful - people who are not only good guardians of the resource entrusted to them, but who extend a helping hand when it is needed, whether that hand is a physical one or a monetary one.

More so, we need volunteers who are self-less and, more importantly, persistent in the work of charity. I recall, a few weeks ago, I received a call on my handphone from a lady who solicited help on behalf of a local charity. Unfortunately, I was in the midst of a meeting and asked that she call back half an hour later. She did call back much later, but by then I was already in another meeting. By then, I could guess what the call was about, but from the sincerity of the voice on the line, I apologised and again ask that she call back later. She did - for the third time - the next day while I was having lunch in a canteen that was so noisy I couldn't hear myself think, much less listen to the person on the other end of the line. So we agreed that she call in the evenings when I would definitely be free of any activities so that I could give her my undivided attention. She called, for the fourth time, and explained the case of her solicitation. For all her persistence and sincerity and the charity work that she was involved in, it didn't take long for me to decide to commit a modest sum of money towards her charity. I am relating this not to show what a generous and charitable person I am. I am sure there are many others who would contribute more than me. I relate this to illustrate how important it is for volunteers to be sincere and persistent in the work they do, even though rejection tends to be the rule rather than the exception in non-face-to-face solicitations. It is so easy for a respondent to just hang up, or say no. I can understand that people might have their suspicions about the genuineness of such calls but I suppose I took a leap of faith and left it to God to execute his judgement if needed. Ultimately, it looked above board as a person arranged to show up at my workplace to pick up my cheque. What I did not expect was that an official 3-ply receipt was issued to me (I didn't even asked for it in the first place) for my contribution. Ever since, I have not been contacted, but it is not for me to hanker for any praise or expressions of gratitude for carrying through with my commitment. It is enough for me to know that somewhere in Singapore, a handicapped person is able to move about more freely because I gave.

I trust that charity is not a seriously wounded animal in Singapore in spite of the bad press that IPCs have received in the last year (and into this as well).

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